December 1, 2022
Every now and then I see some more of the Muskrat Standom’s effluent ooze past my eyes and all I can think is, kid, that boot’s never gonna lick you back.
Timnit Gebru recently wrote about Effective Altruism for Wired, where she correctly notes that it’s all self-serving nonsense, “promising an “unimaginably great future” around the corner while proliferating products harming marginalized groups in the now.”
“Some of the billionaires who have committed significant funds to this goal include Elon Musk, Vitalik Buterin, Ben Delo, Jaan Tallinn, Peter Thiel, Dustin Muskovitz, and Sam Bankman-Fried, who was one of EA’s largest funders until the recent bankruptcy of his FTX cryptocurrency platform.
… and she’s right. But I also think that there’s a dynamic at play that she’s elided, an ideological metagame at play.
In his 1963 speech “Wealth And Poverty“, Galbraith observed that “the modern conservative is not even especially modern. He is engaged, on the contrary, in one of man’s oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. It is an exercise which always involves a certain number of internal contradictions and even a few absurdities”.
This was penned before social media existed, obviously, and long before it was thoroughly weaponized, so it’s understandable how quaint it seems today. How could Galbraith have anticipated the rise of the postmodern conservative, for whom power is self-evidently its own justification, for whom the whole ideas of truth or moral justification are laughable as anything but a tool for retaining that power?
There’s a particular strain of technically-competent, ideologically-adrift pseudointellectual who somehow just stops asking questions the moment they’ve got a mental model that “makes sense” to them. You’ve met their flock on the hellbird and they’ve got a prominent hive over on the orange website, but you’ll find them in any techno-libertarian circle where a dash of cleverness mixed with the facile reasoning that comes with graphs in Econ 101 is praised until it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle, a nerd-posturing Coriolis force churning all these ideas together as they circle the bowl. “The market exists therefore systemic inequality obviously can’t” is the grade of reasoning I’m sure you’ve seen, championed by people happy to believe that the whole story is the just-so story they’ve just told themselves.
Setting aside inquiry and getting to work once you’ve got what you believe is a good mental model of a system is actually a pretty good approach to writing software, and if you’re both a competent engineer and a comfortably-incurious human being you can get a lot done that way. But politics and ideology aren’t software.
The code will never ask you, to whom is it useful that I believe this?
Are they really on my side?
Do I want to be on theirs?
I’ve said this before, that stories are weapons.
Software is quite literally an idea that you’ve taken out of your head and turned into a machine, a set of decisions and parameters that you, as a programmer, impose on people who will have little or no say in the matter. It is ideology and bias turned into power. If you’re happy to repeat things you’ve heard without caring about whether or not they’re true, what are you?
… and I will very happily bet you sixteen billion dollars – payable in six hundred years, assuming an average 4% interest rate – that exactly none of Musk, Buterin, Delo, Tallinn, Thiel, Muskovitz, or Bankman-Fried or anyone else whose net worth goes past the seven-digit mark gives a single fuck about “effective altruism”. Not one. They care about retaining wealth and power, full stop.
And that’s where Effective Altruism really shines. Not as a philosophy, but as a weapon.
Because Effective Altruism gives this entire class of technically competent people a mental model that “makes sense” and has a veneer of moral nobility to it while – conveniently – justifying not doing anything in the present that might inconvenience that wealth and power.
As an ideology, effective altruism is obviously a pile of nonsense. It’s what you’d end up with if you started with Scientology and replaced “thetans” with “dollars.” But as a tool, it’s fantastic: precision-designed to target people who are capable of understanding and changing complex systems and completely neuter them as a threat to that wealth and power.
Put differently: what effective altruism is most effective at is turning smart kids into political NPCs. It’s effective at making its adherents ideologically irrelevant, the world’s smartest, most useful idiots.